Team:GES NCSU Raleigh NC/Project


North Carolina State University Genetic Engineering & Society Center iGEM Team

We are working with Antony Evans of the Glowing Plant Project to explore what it means to act responsibly with respect to genetic engineering. Specifically, we propose an iterative concept mapping framework to assess the values that people associate with responsibly releasing genetically engineered plants beyond the laboratory.

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Mapping Responsible Innovation:

A First Principles Approach

Overall Project Summary

This project explores the research question, How can we act responsibly with respect to genetic engineering? Specifically, we developed an iterative concept mapping tool that prompts people to articulate the values that guide their own definitions of responsible innovation, and to consider their values in relation to other people’s. This first version focuses on values associated with genetically engineered plants, but over time, our tool will also become relevant to other emerging technologies. We developed the tool with help from the developers of The Glowing Plant, the world’s first and only crowd-funded genetically engineered organism.

Project Details

Our tool is inspired by Science and Technology Studies scholarship that demonstrates the inadequacy of defining “risk” in narrow, purely technical terms (Beck, 1992; Luhmann, 1990). Social and cultural values guide the development and diffusion of new technologies (Pinch and Bijker, 1987; Rogers, 2003). Although the term “responsibility” is pervasive in discussions about emerging technologies, defining what it means to act responsibly is actually quite difficult, as different people have different views about what courses of action would be more or less responsible. “Responsibility” can indicate causation, suggesting that a person has made something happen, but it can also suggest legal obligation or liability, as well as moral obligation or ethical duty (Giddens, 1999, p. 8). In light of this complexity, we define Responsible Research and Innovation as “a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view on the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and social desirability” of products and the social processes that surround them (von Schomberg, 2011, p. 9).

By modeling the principles that different people associate with responsible innovation, we hope to facilitate this type of responsiveness. Much like deliberative mapping (Burgess, Stirling, Clark, Davies, Eames, Staley & Williamson, 2007), collaborative modeling helps to open up space for dialogue that incorporates diverse values, promotes understanding, and enables broader agreement on the causes of problems (Cockerill, Daniel, Malczynski & Tidwell, 2009). By prompting people to reflect on their core values, our tool may help users develop reflective equilibrium by harmonizing their belief systems and actions (Deplazes, Ganguli-Mitra & Biller-Andorno, 2009, p. 72).

At the iGEM competition, we will present the first version of our tool, which includes two parts: a concept map and a digital app. The concept map outlines principles that can guide responsible innovation, such as meeting regulatory requirements, preserving human health and safety, advancing innovation, and promoting social equity. The app helps users identify which of these principles they value most by asking them to weigh the importance of a series of statements that speak to each principle. This first version of the tool prompts users to articulate values related to advancing entrepreneurship and innovation, securing public legitimacy and trust, and promoting biodiversity. Over time, we will also add additional measures. After completing the weighing process, users can return to the concept map to learn more about various principles. In future versions, we plan to integrate the concept map and the app into a single interactive online tool.

Throughout the competition, we will be inviting fellow competitors and judges to test drive the current version of our tool by exploring the concept map and weighing the values statements that are included in our app. The data that we collect through this research will help us improve the tool, while also contributing to ongoing discussions about the governance of emerging technologies, and specifically, the governance of synthetic biology.

Methods and Assumptions

Drawing on the diversity of our team (which includes PhD students in Genetics; Public Administration; Public Policy; Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology; Entomology; Communication; and Computer Science), we used a concept-mapping approach to develop a research question and identify an initial list of criteria needed to answer our question (Novak & Cañas, 2008), then conducted a series of literature reviews to refine and build upon this list. We used Cmap concept mapping software to incorporate the revised set of criteria into an interactive online concept map and developed an app that enables users to weigh our principles according to their own value systems. Finally, the developers of The Glowing Plant tested the tool and help us refine it.

A key assumption that underlies our tool is that values can be measured quantitatively. We recognize that this quantitative approach cannot fully account for the complexity of value systems. Some people may interpret our tool as assuming that it is possible to release genetically engineered organisms beyond the laboratory in a responsible manner. However, we believe that ultimately, future versions of our tool will be able to reflect the values of people who don't think that responsible release is possible.


Like all concept maps, ours shows only a fraction of the concepts that could help answer the question of what it means to act responsibly (Novak & Cañas, 2008, p. 12). Similarly, the current version of our app speaks to only a handful of the principles in our concept map--an issue that we will address in future versions. Both tools are also biased towards our team members’ values and priorities.

On a theoretical level, we struggled to translate complex principles such as “promote ethics and social equity” into simple statements to measure users’ value systems. On a pragmatic level, we struggled to find online concept mapping software that allowed users to weigh different concepts according to their values. Finally, inviting the developers of The Glowing Plant to serve as beta testers illustrated the tensions between various principles and helped us to see that it is difficult for a small corporation with limited resources to prioritize principles such as securing public trust and legitimacy that may require significant public outreach. We plan to refine the tool to better address these challenges in the future. We also invite iGEM participants and judges, as well as other users, to provide additional constructive criticism to strengthen the tool further.

Who Should Be Interested In This Tool

Because our tool enables people to compare their own values to the values of others, it provides opportunities for people with opposing value systems to discuss their differences respectfully, making it useful to people working in sometimes-controversial areas such as genetic engineering and synthetic biology. As the tool evolves, it may prove useful in other fields and in educational contexts. In addition, other iGEM teams may be interested in expanding upon and modifying our work to explore the different value systems that people draw on as they consider social, cultural and ethical questions related to synthetic biology or other forms of science.

How Does Our Project Relate To Other iGEM Projects?

Our project draws on the work of several previous iGEM teams, including the 2009 UCSF team’s investigations into potential safety issues associated with conducting synthetic biology experiments outside of academic or corporate settings and the 2012 Edinburgh team’s efforts to increase the accessibility and user-friendliness of synthetic biology. We thank these teams for their contributions and hope that future iGEM teams will join us in building upon their work.

Learn More

To learn more about our tool, please see the video at the top of this page and download a printable executive summary of our project. We are in the process of developing a preliminary grant application to request funding to develop future iterations of the tool. We invite iGEM competitors and judges as well as members of the public to offer comments on this more detailed description of the project.


  1. Beck, U. (1992). Risk society; towards a new modernity. London: Sage Publications.
  2. Burgess, J., Stirling, A., Clark, J., Davies, G., Eames, M., Staley, K., & Williamson, S. (2007). Deliberative mapping: a novel analytic-deliberative methodology to support contested science-policy decisions. Public Understanding of Science, 16(3), 299–322.
  3. Cockerill, K., Daniel, L., Malczynski, L., & Tidwell, V. (2009). A fresh look at a policy sciences methodology: collaborative modeling for more effective policy. Policy Sciences, 42(3), 211–225.
  4. Deplazes, A., Ganguli-Mitra, A., & Biller-Andorno, N. (2009). The Ethics of Synthetic Biology: Outlining the Agenda. In Synthetic Biology: the technoscience and its societal consequences. Edited by Markus Schmidt (pp. 65–79). New York: Springer Science & Business Media. Retrieved from here.
  5. Giddens, A. (1999). Risk and Responsibility. The Modern Law Review, 62(1), 1–10.
  6. Luhmann, N. (1990). Technology, environment and social risk: a systems perspective. Industrial Crisis Quarterly, 4(3), 223–231.
  7. Novak, J. D., & Cañas, A. J. (2008). The theory underlying concept maps and how to construct and use them. Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition Pensacola Fl, Retrieved from here.
  8. Pinch, T. J., & Bijker, W. E. (1987). The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other. In W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes, & T. Pinch (Eds.), The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (pp. 17–50). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  9. Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.
  10. Von Schomberg, R. (2011). Prospects for technology assessment in a framework of responsible research and innovation. In Technikfolgen abschätzen lehren (pp. 39-61). VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften. Retrieved from here.